Conan the Barbarian (2011): Marcus Nispel’s Primitive Gut-Level Cinema

The new 3D version of “Conan the Barbarian,” directed by Marcus Nispel, is a passably entertaining fare that should please young and indiscriminating male viewers.

An ultra-violent action-adventure, which centers on the same character that Schwarzenegger played but is not a remake, the movie delivers the basic goods (but not more) expected of a primitive mythic epos whose story is driven by obsession and vengeance, guts and blood.

Opening August 19, Lionsgate should do reasonably well at the box-office with this late summer release, if only because of the curiosity factor. There have been talks about new rendition for years now. That said, I expect critics to be divided in their assessments of a film revolving around a hero who can hardly speak more than a few words at a time.

Overall, though, this “Conan” is much inferior to and less rewarding than the 1982 cult picture starring Schwarzenegger.  This version is adapted to the screen by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood from the original works of the prolific Robert E. Howard. Whereas the 1982 tale was more about slavery and oppression, this one is more about revenge–and brutally gory, darkly toned action set-pieces.

The pulp hero created by Robert E. Howard (who committed suicide in 1936) in the 1930s, was at the height of his cultural visibility in the 1980s, when the “Swords and Sorcery” movie genre resurfaced with such films as “Krull,” “Willow,” “Kull the Conqueror.” In addition to paperback books about Conan’s adventures, there were several “new” comic books, including “Conan the Barbarian,” “King Conan,” and “The Savage Sword of Conan.”

The filmmakers of this “Conan” have tried to remain faithful to the mythology and psychology of the iconic character, now played by his Jason Momoa, the handsome guy from Baywatch who’s an unknown quantity as a big-screen presence. It’s a good idea to cast the lead with a relatively unfamiliar actor. They know that no matter which actor plays the role, he would suffer in comparison to the indelible image of Schwarzenegger in what was is his most iconic part to date; two years later, Schwarzengger appeared in James Cameron’s “The Terminator.” As stiff and leaden as Schwarzenegger was, he was suitably cast as a comic hero, and more importantly, he was in congruence with John Milius’s jingoistic conception.

Both director and producers must have realized the limitations pf the handsome Jason Momoa, who’s half-Irish, as an actor, for they emphasize Conan as a silent, reticent hero, who relies on his sword rather than his words. Reportedly, Momoa, having spent an extensive training at the gym, did most of his own stunts. A giant of man, rising to six foot five, he is as tall as the hero of “Thor,” only more muscled.

Though he plays a secondary part, Ron Perlman renders the film’s most intriguing and eccentric performance as Corin, Conan’s father and leader of the Cimmerian tribe, a warring clan living in a hostile environment, which is defined by endless conflicts over territorial domination. Corin is left with the responsibility of raising his son alone after Conan’s mother (Laila Rouass), a Cimmerian fighter who dies in childbirth in the midst of a nasty battle.

The versatile thespian Stephen Lang is cast as Khalar Zym, Conan’s enemy and his father’s murderer, in other words, the nastiest warlord in Hyboria. Khalar is introduced early on in the story, when Conan is still a boy. His mission is to recover the Mask of Acheron, which he believes would help him reclaim his dead wife and perhaps even gain fame and immortality.

Tamara, Conan’s accomplice and romantic interest, is played by Rachel Nichols, a skillful martial arts actress who had showed her abilities in “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe.” Tamara is a direct descendant of the Sorcerers of Acheron whose blood will awaken the power of the Mask of Acheron. A smart, strong woman, Tamara breaks the mold of typical fantasy-action heroines, suitably serving as Conan’s female counterpart.

The other woman in the tale is Khalar’s obsessive and vicious daughter, Marique, played by Rose McGowan as half-human, half sorceress. Inflicted with what could be described as Electra’s complex, Marique is jealous of the grip that her long dead witch-mother still holds on her father. Her evil behavior is motivated by her wish to prove herself to her father and thus gain his love. Like a cobra, she entrances and then attacks her prey with lethal metallic nails.

The young Conan is played by the adolescent actor, Leo Howard, whose early scenes are meant to explain how and why Conan became so tough, ruthless, and hard-hearted.

As he has shown in his new takes on the cult movies, “The Texas Chain Masscare” and “Friday the 13th,” Marcus Nispul is a craftsman, but not a director who pays much attention to narrative logic or characterization. His skills are decidedly used to an advantage in the physical aspects of his productions, all of which lack subtlety or complexity.

There are some well executed combat scenes between Conan and Khalar, a master of swords and of a double scimitar, which may establish a record for their ferocious brutality and bloody gore.

The filmmakers are certainly aware of the simple (and simplistic) mythic qualities of the literary material, which explains its long-enduring appeal especially among teenage boys. Indeed, the forge, where the clan’s swords are made, is depicted as a sacred place—sort of a church—due to their essential function for their very existence, and there’s a good deal of fetishism in portraying their various weaponry.

“Conan the Barbarian” was shot at Nu Boyana Studios and various locations in Bulgaria, with its harsh yet beautiful landscapes, using, among other exteriors, a big cave, Prohodna Cave in Lukovit, and a historic forest, Pobiti in Kamani in Varna, a resort town near the Black Sea.

Please do not get me wrong: I don’t think the Schwarzenegger picture was much better–the story (co-written by John Milius and Oliver Stone) was overly simplistic and the dialogue mostly ludicrous. But for me the 1982 movie was more enjoyable, largely due to Schwarzenegger’s campy performance and the acting of two serious players: James Earl Jones as the wizard Thulsa Doom and Max Von Sydow as the grizzled King Osrik. Nonetheless, by today standards, some of that movie’s visual imagery are crude and cheesy (remember the sequence with a giant snake? Or Conan’s sex with a topless woman in a cage?).

Like the 1982 movie, this “Conan” goes unabashedly for immediate and visceral impact, which is proper for a picture that spills guts, dismembers heads, and have bodies thrashed by sea monsters. Three decades ago, “Conan the Barbarian” inspired numerous video games, and I will not be surprised if the new picture creates new video games to be embraced by muscle-driven guys who believe that size matters. After all, let’s not forget that before Schwarzenegger became a bona fide movie star, he was an internationally famous body-builder.


Lionsgate release presented with Millennium Films of a Millennium Films/Conan Properties Intl. production in association with Emmett Furla Films Prods.

Produced by Fredrick Malmberg, Boaz Davidson, Joe Gatta, Danny Lerner, John Baldecchi, Les Weldon, Henry Winterstern.

Executive producers, Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Fredrick Fierst, George Furla, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Eda Kowan, John Sacchi, Michael Paseornek, Jason Constantine.

Co-executive producer, Lonne Ramati.

Directed by Marcus Nispel.

Screenplay, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood, based on the character of Conan as originally created by Robert E. Howard.

Camera, Thomas Kloss.

Editor, Ken Blackwell.

Music, Tyler Bates.

Production designer, Chris August; art director, Antonello Rubino; set decorators, Judy Farr, Valya Mladenova.

Costume designer, Wendy Partridge.

Sound,, Vladimir Kaloyanov; supervising sound editor, Trevor Jolly; re-recording mixers, Chris David, Marchall Garlington.

Special effects supervisor, Alex Gunn; visual effects supervisors, Holly Gosnell, Felix Pomeranz; visual effects, Worldwide FX; makeup and special makeup effects supervisors, Shaun Smith, Scott Wheeler.

Stunt coordinators, David Leitch, Noon Orsatt.

Fight coordinator, Jonathan Eusebio; stereoscopic supervisor, Evan Jacobs.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 113 Minutes